Quadrant Four Book Reviews
In this section we present reviews of books that speak - in whole or in part - to the topic of participatory democracy and the forms of social organization that promote it.

In the present review we consider two books on the radical changes that have taken place over the course of the last two centuries in attitudes and institutions governing sexual relations in America:
  • Free Love: Marriage and Middle-Class Radicalism in America, 1825-1860, John C. Spurlock (New York and London: New York University Press, 1988).
  • The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love & Eroticism in Modern Societies, Anthony Giddens (Stanford, California: Standford University Press, 1992).
Gidden's book presents the view that a generic restructuring of intimacy has been taking place over the course of the past 200 years. He argues that this restructuring, brought about by feminism and other causes, enhances our capacity to appreciate deeply democratic forms of social organization.

Spurlock looks into the early history of one of the movements in America that first sought such a radical restructuring of interpersonal relationship - the 'free love' movement. Individuals associated with this 19th century movement, in the course of trying to 'end the artificial relationships that tied the workingman to a commerce based on selfishness, the worshiper to bigotry and superstition, and the wife or husband to an unloving mate', were amongst the first to explore ideas, practices, and institutions designed to reconcile the freedom of the individual with strongly cohesive interpersonal ties that come from a genuine loving union.

Free to Love
Two Books on Intimacy and Democracy

It is hard to imagine anyone living in the contemporary Western world who has not heard of the 'sexual revolution'. Or anyone who has not been made aware, in these cultures, of related shifts in sexual conduct and mores that have taken place over the extended period during which this phenomenon is presumed to have occured. The term itself - 'sexual revolution' - is a fairly innocuous one, or so it seems at first glance at least. A deeper look, however, reveals that the phrase itself deceives. It emphasizes the sexual nature of the changes that have been struggling to emerge in the sphere of interpersonal relations, as opposed to other more important aspects.

If, however, we are to believe these two books, what is really at stake in this revolution is a new way of structuring intimacy - one which eschews coercion, sexual domination, and gender inequity on the one hand, and promotes mutually respectful exchange, reciprocity, and consensus-building process on the other.

Intimate Relations:
A Playground for Learning Democratic Interchange?

In his book, The Transformation of Intimacy, contemporary sociologist Anthony Giddens describes the revolution that has taken place in the interpersonal sphere as 'a process in which women have thus far played the prime role', and one that constitutes a veritable 'democratization of personal life'. It has brought us direct, personal experience of what democratically organized relationship is, or could be. And it has provided us with much-needed opportunities, within our most intimate interpersonal relationships, for valuable learning about how to conduct ourselves democratically in the public sphere.

Giddens defines democracy in the following way:

If the various approaches to political democracy be compared, as David Held has shown, most have certain elements in common. They are concerned to secure 'free and equal relations' between individuals in such a way as to promote certain outcomes :
  1. The creation of circumstances in which people can develop their potentialities and express their diverse qualities. A key objective here is that each individual should respect others' capabilities as well as their ability to learn and enhance their aptitudes.
  2. Protection from the arbitrary use of political authority and coercive power. This presumes that decisions can in some sense be negotiated by those they affect, even if they are taken on behalf of a majority by a minority.
  3. The involvement of individuals in determining the conditions of their association. The presumption in this case is that individuals accept the authentic and reasoned character of others' judgements.
  4. Expansion of the economic opportunity to develop available resources - including here the assumption that when individuals are relieved of the burdens of physical need they are best able to achieve their aims.
It is the idea of 'autonomy' that links these various aspirations, according to Giddens. He defines the term in this way:
Autonomy means the capacity of individuals to be self-reflective and self-determining: 'to deliberate, judge, choose and act upon different courses of action'. Clearly autonomy in this sense could not be developed while political rights and obligations were closely tied to traditional and fixed prerogatives of property. Once these were dissolved, however, a movement towards autonomy became both possible and seen to be necessary. An overwhelming concern with how individuals might best determine and regulate the conditions of their association is characteristic of virtually all interpretations of modern democracy.
Giddens offers the following 'principle of autonomy' as a summary statement of these aspirations:
... individuals should be free and equal in the determination of the conditions of their own lives; that is, they should enjoy equal rights (and, accordingly, equal obligations) in the specification of the framework, which generates and limits the opportunities available to them, so long as they do not deploy this framework to negate the rights of others.

In the possibility of genuine intimacy, Giddens finds the promise of democracy. The best hope for a society operating in a genuinely democratic manner, he argues, is in the emergence of what he calls 'pure relationship'. By this term Giddens means a relationship not only of sexual equality but also emotional and social equality. In a 'pure' relationship, according to Gidden, relation is entered into 'for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another'. Pure relationships are continued only in so far as it is thought by all parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each to voluntarily remain within it. Pure relationships can be sexual in nature, but need not be. Parent-child relationships, and other forms of kinship and/or friendship, can be also be 'pure'.'

Pure relationships conform to the ideal 'confluent love', to use Giddens' term, which he contrasts with 'romantic love'. Whereas romantic love depends on 'projective identification' with the object of one's love, confluent love, which is in some ways its opposite, involves developing relationships the continuation of which depends on real intimacy.

In the arena of personal life, autonomy means the successful realisation of the reflexive project of self - the condition of relating to others in an egalitarian way. ... The autonomous individual is able to treat others as such and to recognize that the development of their separate potentialities is not a threat.

And so, Giddens concludes, 'the advancement of self-autonomy in the context of pure relationships is rich with implications for democratic practice in the larger community'.

'The involvement of individuals in determining the conditions of their association' - this statement exemplifies the ideals of the pure relationship. It expresses a prime difference between traditional and present-day marriage and gets to the heart of the democratising possibilities of the transformation of intimacy. It applies, of course, not just to the initiation of a relationship, but to the reflexivity inherent in its continuance - or its dissolution. Not just respect for the other, but an opening out to that person, are needed for this criterion to be met. An individual whose real intentions are hidden from a partner cannot offer the qualities needed for a cooperative determination of the conditions of the relationship. Any and every therapeutic text on the subject of relationships will demonstrate why revelation to the other - as a means of communication rather than emotional dumping - is a binding aspiration of democratically ordered interaction.

... Being regarded as trustworthy by a partner is a recognition of personal integrity, but in an egalitarian setting such integrity means also revealing reasons for actions if called upon to do so - and in fact having good reasons for any actions which affect the life of the other.

Giddens' decision to use the word 'pure' as the adjective with which to describe the ideal in relationships may at first seem an unfortunate choice. The word carries unnecessarily religious or moralistic overtones - as a result, perhaps, of its association with such terms as 'puritanism'.

But an appeal to religion is not what Giddens seems to have in mind. Interestingly, the word 'pure' is precisely the adjective used to express a similar idea put forward by some of the early 19th century 'free lovers'. And as it turns out, it wouldn't be farfetched to think of Giddens position as a late twentieth century expression of 'free love' philosophy.

Love Enjoyed in Freedom:
A History of the Free Love Movement

And so we turn now to the second book under consideration in this review - Spurlock's history of the early stages of the free love movement in America, Free Love: Marriage and Middle-Class Radicalism in America, 1825-1860.

Spurlock characterizes this movement in the following way:

By the middle of the 1850s a network stretched across the northern states composed of many hard-working men and women who ... demanded the 'disintegration' of American society, the repudiation of Christian orthodoxy, and the abolition of marriage. These were the free lovers.
It was the free lovers, according to Spurlock, who helped to define a very long tradition of radicalism in the United States that included not only antislavery activists, but also feminists. During the period in question,
no-one could be a free lover ... without being a radical, and therefore against the slavery of the black man and the married woman. Free love, to a large extent, defined what radicalism meant to the ante-bellum bourgeoisie. I have used the term middle-class radicalism to designate this extension of middle-class values into a criticism of American society.
Free love, however, did not last as a movement. Spurlock attributes this primarily to two causes: 1) the fact that many of its objectives (sexual freedom, the philosophical and cultural separation of sex and marriage, the use of birth control, divorce laws enabling the dissolution of marriages, and so on) were not only eventually adopted as goals of mainstream society, they were goals that had been more or less successfully accomplished by the end of the 19th century; and 2) the fact that the free love movement was primarily a middle class phenomenon during a time in which radicalism was increasingly turning to the concerns of the working class.

It was, however, a movement whose issues were to resurface, nearly a century later, in the postindustrial age:

Following the Reconstruction, radicalism became largely a matter of working-class organization and left behind the cultural concerns that had been central to the free love ideology. These concerns, however, persisted through the century and have become important in our postindustrial world when marriage and family, along with the middle class, seem to be in crisis.

A slightly different way of putting this would be to say that the free love movement was co-opted. The culture permitted an increase in sexual freedoms in lieu of satisfying the more radical demands that were being made by the free lovers, who insisted on a thoroughgoing overhaul of cultural values and practices regarding interpersonal relationships - marriage as domination, gender equity in relationships, non-coercive relationship, etc. In combination with the fact that some radicals believed that the need to address economic issues pre-empted the necessity of fighting domination in the sphere of private and public relationship, this could very well account for the decline of interest in the free love movement in the late nineteenth century.

In this way one could also begin to explain why the same issues continue to re-surface today - as illustrated by Gidden's book: these issues were never satisfactorily resolved. We are only now, more than a hundred years after the decline of the free love movement, coming to the realization that the insights underlying and inspiring the original movement were never permitted to come to full fruition in society at large - either at that time, or since.

'Free Love' as a Movement

The free love movement took place against a backdrop created in part by the institution of marriage. So it is therefore only natural for Spurlock, interested in placing the movement in its historical context, to seek to describe changes that had taken place in that institution prior to the beginning of the free love movement in the early 19th century:

The economic changes that fostered the new middle class also encouraged new family patterns. The Puritan ideal of marriage as the mainstay of a consensual society yielded to the new middle-class reality in which marriage served as an enclave where producers were prepared for the active life of commerce or nursed back to health from the wounds of competitive society. ... The married couple no longer formed a partnership; rather, each performed duties within his or her separate sphere.

One of the earliest attacks on the ideal of middle-class marriage thus comes, according to Spurlock, from Robert Owens. It was he who, "rather than understanding marriage as the consequence of an unwavering and purely private experience of love, ... viewed [it] as a social product serving the ends of a class-bound society". Owens' appreciation for, and faith in, cooperative communities grew out of his experience in managing cotton mills during the 1790s, Spurlock tells us.

The remedy, as Owens saw it, was the destruction of 'the threefold causes which deprive man of mental liberty': private property, irrational religion, and a marriage based on private property.

Although closely identified with Robert Owen through the late 1820s, Robert Dale Owen (born in 1801) moved away from communitarian reform after his father's return to Europe. From envisioning a society completely remade, so that communal child-rearing could take the risk of marriage, Robert Dale Owen turned to support for divorce as the most important reform of marriage. He agreed with his father that love could not be guaranteed but believed that the availability of divorce would make marriage more nearly a union of two freely consenting individuals and guarantee the affections of those involved.
Whereas Owenism's appeal in America was adversely affected by the growth of individualism, another movement that brought into question important middle-class institutions - Transcendalism - benefited from the rise of 'the individual'. Such notables as Emerson, Thoreau, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Alcott and Fuller - all recognized as eminent transcendentalists - actively critiqued marriage. Their criticism of the institution rested primarily on 'spiritual' grounds, however. We are told that Margaret Fuller's suspicions regarding the institution, for example, 'resulted from her recognition of the contradiction between the bourgeois woman's sphere and the individual's search for transcendence.'

The social sphere held little attraction for the transcendentalists. They indeed argued that if individualism was the value to embrace, then 'the associative life is a false effort.' And although transcendentalism attempted to repudiate Owenite socialism, they nevertheless 'helped to prepare for later reform movements that would seek to reduce government, commerce, and marriage to freely contracted relationships among individual sovereigns.'

The ideas of Charles Fourier, who had also received attention in the United States as early as 1838, were similarly called into question by the transcendentalists. What Fourier had presumably ignored, according to transcendentalist critics 'were those qualities of humanity that constitute individuality'.

Others free lovers, however, embraced Fourierism, believing that it offered a 'reconciliation of individual and communal values'.

In these early 19th century debates amongst radicals we see two perspectives on the relationship between the individual and society emerging. In one view individual autonomy and socially cohesive forms of organization are believed to be mutually exclusive options. In the other, they are not. Not until relatively recently, however, has explicit attention been given to the former view as the manifestation of a particularly dangerous socio-political fallacy - the 'autonomy versus community' fallacy [[1]]. We can now, in retrospect, see the early 1800s as a time in which this realization was struggling to emerge in left-wing politics.

Although conceptual clarity on this issue had not been reached at that time, many individuals in the early free love movement nevertheless consciously strove to establish interpersonal relationships of a sort that reconciled their own individual autonomy with an equally profound need for intimate social bonding. And some understood precisely what they were doing - despite the fact that they often lacked a good way of keeping in theoretical focus the fallacy that so frequently threatened to undermine their efforts by rendering autonomy and community irreconcilable 'opposites'.

Noyes, who had gathered around himself a community of likeminded people in Putney Vermont in 1838, was one of the individuals who made a gallant effort to remain on the razor's edge between individual sovereignty and group solidarity. He described the developments that took place in the Putney community between 1840 and 1847 as the working out - in theory and practice - of the principles of 'assocation'. 'Step by step,' he said, 'the school advanced from community of faith, to community of property, community of households, community of affections'.

An offshoot of this experiment, the Oneidan community in upstate New York, was in fact the first to use the term 'free love' to describe their system of complex marriage.

Like these alternative communities, based on notions of 'individual perfection', certain forms of spiritualism embraced a form of individualism that espoused a kind of intense individual experience that has always been the hallmark of revivalism. Individuals in these traditions sought a kind of wisdom that is founded on intuitive forms of knowledge that transcends known catergories. But they also - and this is what is particularly remarkable about them - stressed 'harmony among people and between the spiritual and the carnal.'

For example:

Combining study of Swedenborg and mesmerism with their interest in social reform, the circle [of people gathering around John O. Wattles in Cincinnati in 1846] hoped to isolate the 'First Principles' that would guarantee personal and social harmony.'

Similarly, Andrew Jackson Davis spoke of 'innate affinities which draw soul to soul', sometimes calling these 'elective affinities' - a term that was presumably meant to emphasize the fact that the love that was thereby fostered was freely given love.

By the early 1850s, Spurlock notes, it was common for spiritualism to be linked with free love.

The free love movement was the epitome of middle-class radicalism, accepting both the worldly and heavenly reorganization first discussed by the harmonalists. If free lovers were more extreme, it was in their belief in individuality and their extension of it into marriage. Religious doubt and the rejection of orthodoxy would be as typical of free lovers as of harmonalists. For both, genuine spirituality meant purer relations between the sexes.
Given the mention made of 'pure relations' in the above paragraph - and many others like it in the free love literature - Giddens' more recent parallel use of the term can be recognized as no mistake, no mere coincidence. Purity, in this context, implies an absence of those features that typically taint interpersonal relationships in cultures founded on domination: coercion, inequity, and injustice. A rejection of orthodoxy, a religious skepticism, and a willingness to embrace doubt - these are the kinds of personal attributes that it would not be at all be surprising to find in individuals striving for this type of 'purity'.

Autonomy and Community

Although 'individual sovereignty' was the guiding precept for the first proponents of free love, these individuals typically went out of their way to form voluntary communities in order to 'test individual sovereignty in a practical setting.' The intention, as Josiah Warren stated it in the 1830s, was that these communities be ones in which 'every man's hand acts with instead of 'against' every man, and human interests are harmonized'. The principle of harmony was deliberately fashioned to 'work in concord with the sovereignty of the individual,' according to Spurlock. The practical application of both principles resulted in situations in which 'nothing hindered an individual from working with others on projects of common concern, but nothing coerced anyone to do so.'

Like the New Harmony community established earlier, Modern Times, a community near New York City, attracted radicals who sought a form of community that valued individual sovereignty. Members were downright suspicious - and rightfully so - of the prevailing institutions of the time.

Individual sovereignty, which repudiated the authority of both state and church, strongly implied that all social institutions were null and void. Matters of taste, right and wrong, sanity and insanity were the business of the individual, according to Josiah Warren, provided the individual made decisions at his or her own cost.
And yet, even in statements like the following, in which the intent is to stress individual sovereignty, interdependence and genuine intimacy is also celebrated:
It is in combination or close connection only, that compromise and conformity are required. Peace, harmony, ease, security, happiness, will be found only in individuality. (Warren)
We would have preferred the word 'autonomy' to 'individuality'. For the latter term, insofar as it implies a distinction between the 'individual' and 'society', promotes precisely the kind of confusion that undercuts the goals that Warren and like-minded persons sought to achieve - the reconciliation of 'individual sovereignty' and socially cohesive 'community'. As Andrews pointed out in 1851, 'individual sovereignty' does not necessarily entail 'the disruption of relationships'; quite the contrary, it promotes 'the creation of distinct independent personalities between whom relation can exist.' It is almost as if genuine individual sovereignty paradoxically requires group solidarity, and vice versa.

Thus, by the end of the 1840s, not only could 'the fervors of reformers like Andrews find expression in abolitionism, associationism, feminism, and other groups,' the 'individualist ideals seemingly harmonized with the demands of organization in the struggle to free the slave, empower the female, and develop human perfection.'

And so, likewise, is the sovereignty of the individual reconciled with the joining together of individuals in certain forms of marriage, according to proponents of free love. As Mary and Thomas Nichols put it in their mid-19th century manuscript,Marriage, such a couple is ideally comprised of individuals who are ...

each independent of the other, [yet] drawn together soley by the charm of mutual attraction, coming from a mutual fitness and adaptation to the spiritual and material loves, or passional desires of each other.

In the years from 1853 to 1860, free love became the ultimate expression, according to Spurlock, of middle-class radicalism. With this came a 'repudiation of any relations between man and woman that violated the individual sovereignty of either.' Although Andrews and the Nicholses remained married after their conversion to free love, Spurlock reports, they 'redefined their relationship, asserting that they remained faithful out of love rather than coercion.' For them, although the sovereignty of the individual might be 'the necessary first step', according to Thomas Nichols, 'the mistake is in thinking it the last.'

By 1854 individuality indeed began to recede as a personal concern of the Nicholses, and their interest in 'collective harmony' became prominent. But the tragedy for this particular couple is that the stress they experienced as a result of trying to reconcile these two demands in a society that saw them as irreconcilable opposites ultimately became intolerable for Mary - and eventually this led both of them to attempt to escape by turning to organized religion and more or less conventional lives.

Others, like Mary Grove, fared better. Like Mary Nichols, she was concerned about the limits placed upon women who sought to realize their individuality, and saw the necessity for individuals to find some way of 'stepping beyond that individuality'. But, unlike Nichols, the critique of society on which her views were founded was more profound, and realistic. In 1842 she is reported to have said, 'There is no doubt in my mind that society as it is, is radically and fundamentally wrong'. Its reconstruction, according to Mary Grove, could only begin where falsehood in the relations between men and women ended - and this would require a complete overhaul of the institution of marriage.

Whatever happened to free love as a movement? In the years after the American civil war,

As marriage took on the attributes of sexual respectablity and as nationalism replaced the republicanism of the prewar years, advocates of individual sovereignty became more marginal to American society. By the middle of the 1870s, free love radicals had lost their connections with many of the more moderate reformers and found themselves faced with a middle class committed to ending discussion of marriage reform and sexual liberty. ... As contrary opinions became marginal to the mainstram of middle-class belief following the war, free love could not longer appeal as a logical extension of what the middle class claimed to believe but only as a dangerous attack upon the most prized middle-class values.
Individual sovereignty, Spurlock concludes, increasingly became more specifically the program of those who were distinctly not in the mainstream of society. In addition, there were other factors that contributed to the marginalization of free love:
  1. The movement began to diverge from the women's movement. Although the most radical visions of the feminists frequently found support from free lovers, the converse was not always the case;
  2. More liberal divorce laws were established, resulting in the fact that divorces doubled every twenty years during the period between 1860 and 1900.
  3. Free love began to distance itself from the day-to-day concerns of America's middle class;
  4. As sexual pleasure was more openly endorsed, personal enjoyment in marriage was sanctioned - alleviating the need to find pleasure in extra-marital unions;
  5. The separation of sex from procreation 'gave more protection to the health of married women, thereby undermining another of free loves's traditional attacks on marriage'; and, finally
  6. Free lovers faced a middle class that was increasingly committed to 'large-scale organization, nationalism, and sexual respectability and INDIFFERENT TO FEARS OF ARTIFICIAL RELATSIONHIPS' [emphasis ours].

By 1890, leadership of the movement passed almost exclusively to anarchist circles in Massachusetts and the West. Although Spurlock does not mention it, this is precisely the group - as we have argued elsewhere on this web site - that most clearly understands that individual autonomy and social cohension need not necessarily be considered mutually exclusive options!

One of the anarchists who espoused free love at that time - James Clay, a 'student of reform and a believer in association' - assumed a typically anarchist position, as the following passage from Spurlock's book demonstrates:

He came to believe that government based upon force was evil. Only by life in [free] association, in which wealth was roughly equal and each possessed his own land, could harmony be created. Whether or not he was inspired by Warren, his thinking was in many respects identical to Warren's. 'Absolute, individual, perpetual freedom from any external statute law,' wrote Clay in 1856, 'is my unalienable right, more sacred to me than my material life'.

More than just an extension of his anarchist beliefs, free love for James Clay was the basic reform that would end inequality in wealth because charity would be extended to all. 'Freedom in love is to result in the universality of love, and a community of love, which is to be followed by a community of property, which is to be founded in truth, on a community of interest in each other's life and happiness.' Like many free lovers, he believed that all relations between men and women could be purified by freedom from the compulsion to marry. (166)

Only when love is enjoyed in freedom, and extended in a more or less non-exclusionary or 'universal' fashion, is it - in the terminology used by both the free lovers and, more recently, by Gidden - 'pure', or 'true'.

Although free love, as a social movement, came to an end in the late 1800s, it would be a mistake to think that the concepts on which the movement was founded have exhausted their usefulness. They have, in fact, not yet come to full fruition and continue to possess untapped wealth, even as we enter a new millenium.

In free-lover Josiah Warren's concept of the need for a 'dis-integration' of non-voluntary relationship, for instance, we can see a precursor to the contemporary notion of 'deconstruction' - the difference being that while deconstruction is characteristically applied merely to language, it was the actual breakdown of coercive institutions themselves that Warren sought!

Another example is Clay's suggestion that the experience of free love could 'teach purity' in relationships - a belief that prefigures Giddens' argument, as we've described it above, that genuine intimacy teaches us the skills that participatory democracy requires.

Yet another instance of the visionary acumen of the 'free lovers' is to be found in the manner in which Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, who reputedly '[sought] purity in its most cosmic form', anticipates late 20th century radical movements like 'social ecology' and 'deep ecology'. It was Lazarus who, in 1852, wrote:

Health is something more than a dietetic code of rules for private use; it is the entire harmony of man with his planet and his universe; not a scheme of individual evasion, to dodge the common evil, but a theory of integral or social redemption.

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